Four Decades of Natural Disasters: What’s Changed?

Four Decades of Natural Disasters: What’s Changed?

From 2000 to 2018, an average 38,000 men, women, and children died from natural disasters each year.  The worldwide human life toll during 2010 was 296,800 with 222,500 from Haiti alone as a result of 373 such tragic events. Between 2014 and 2017, 870 million people in 160 countries lost their lives or livelihoods or were displaced from their homes due to disastrous acts of nature.

Economic losses – from earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, landslides, tornadoes, hurricanes, raging fires, volcano eruptions – are nearly too staggering to comprehend. The damage from a single, earthquake that lasted all of 20 seconds and killed 6000 people in Kobe, Japan cost US$200 billion. U.S. Hurricanes Katrina in 2005 and Harvey in 2017 suffered US$125 billion and US$85 billion respectively.  The 2008 Sichuan Hurricane tallied another US$85-86 billion.  To date, 2017 was the costliest year with global cost estimates reaching US$335 billion (CRED 2018).

Each decade from 1980 through 2018 has seen an escalation in such natural catastrophes.  The 1980s endured 165. Two hundred fifty-eight occurred during the 1990s. The next ten-year period was plagued by 385.  Now, nine years into 2000-2019’s decade, global natural calamities are averaging 323. Asia-Pacific nations are the most frequent victims.  That region experienced 55 earthquakes, 217 storms and cyclones, and 236 severe flooding events from 2014 to 2017.

Unfortunately, to most, including the media, these devastating natural tragedies all too quickly become “yesterday’s” news.  The physical clean-up lingers for months, even years. The heartache from the loss of loved ones lasts for life.  Again, far too often, Nature’s deadly and destructive tantrums are dismissed with the simplistic belief that their increasing frequency and intensity are due to “climate change.”  There is some truth in that theory depending upon how one defines that phrase.  However, contributing factors include far more than “climate change” implies.

Demographic and socioeconomic characteristics determine the degree of exposure to harm for a population before, during, and after each devastating natural event.  Vulnerability depends upon a nation’s capacity to “anticipate, cope with, resist and recover from the impact of a natural hazard,” according to the Population Reference Bureau (PRB).

As an area’s population increases, people tend to migrate from rural areas to cities, favoring those along coastlines. Some 180,000 people move to urban locations every day, with three quarters of the world’s most populated cities near a coast. Nearly 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in dense urban areas.

Poverty plays an equally important role in upping the risk potential when a disaster strikes.  Roughly 18 percent of urban dwellings are classified as dismally built “slums” exposing their inhabitants to enhanced dangers from storms, floods, earthquakes, landslides, etc. These facts are why disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis are so deadly.  The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami took the lives of more than 230,000 people in 14 countries.

It matters not if the target region is urban, suburban, or rural; in low, moderate, or high-income locales.  Nature seems to strike areas traditionally deficient in disaster resilient infrastructure.  Power supplies collapse. Roads, designed largely to allow developers to build a maximum number of homes on every square meter of land, fail to support mass emergency evacuation.

The “miracle” of the 2019 Paradise, California fires that destroyed 13,900 homes and 86 lives is the fact that more people weren’t killed.  In spite of a 100-mile network of roads linking their homes, fleeing residents surrounded by raging flames waited hours for traffic clogged roadways to allow them egress to safety.  Compounding the danger, roads planned for development, not emergency extraction, perform double disaster duty by channeling rain water into floods that undermine hillsides causing deadly and destructive land- and mudslides.

During the four summer months in 2010, China lost more than 1500 lives due to floods and another 1765 from flood-triggered land, rock, and mud slides.  Pakistan lost nearly that many the same year.  A full 82 percent of Asia’s natural disasters are weather-related.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) points out that storm intensity is indeed related to atmospheric and ocean temperature warming. Water vapor acts as a propellant for storm wind speed.  Still, catastrophic weather events can hardly be attributed solely to the political definition of “climate change.”

Climate does change and often.  That change, however, comes in regular, fairly predictable patterns.  Each year, the South Pacific Cyclone season falls between January and March.  April marks the seasonal beginning for Eastern Pacific Cyclones. June through September is Hurricane Season for the Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and the Caribbean, with September 10 acknowledged as its traditional peak.

Every two to seven years the climate is visited by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation(ENSO) cycle that brings temperature fluctuations between the east-central Equatorial Pacific Ocean and the atmosphere.  El Niño and La Niña are opposite phases of ENSO. The former is the “warm” phase. The latter is the “cold” phase.  The duration of each traditionally lasts from nine months to a year or occasionally longer.

El Niño’s warming effect on ocean temperatures and weather was first recognized in the 1600s.  It brings warmer than average temperatures to the eastern Pacific and across the western and northern regions of the United States, western and central Canada, as well as wetter than average weather over sections of the Gulf Coast.  El Niño’s influence affects global weather patterns, ocean conditions, and marine fisheries for extended periods.

La Niña or The Little Girl brings cooler temperatures to the same regions.  She is believed to be responsible for floods and landslides triggered by end of the year rains.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) list factors that lead to increased disaster vulnerability including population increase, weak infrastructure, urbanization, global warming, and one, for the most part, directly attributed to the behavior of humankind: deforestation, the mass destruction of trees.

Logging for paper and wood products, slash-and-burn farming and cattle ranching, mining, drilling, clearing forests for housing, industry, and coastal aquaculture are all man-made factors responsible for the loss of 502,000 square miles of forests since 1990.  Eighteen million acres of forest are destroyed each year, according the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO). Nearly half of the world’s tropical forests have been clear cut.  Historically, 90 percent of the United States indigenous forest has been removed since 1600. Only 30 percent of all forest coverage remains worldwide.

In addition to displacing wildlife and disrupting the oxygen for carbon dioxide exchange in trees (one tree produces almost 260 pounds of oxygen each year), deforestation plays havoc with climate conditions.  Instead of acting as carbon sinks (where excess atmospheric carbon is stored in trees), clear-cutting forests sends vast amounts of carbon back into the air and disrupts the atmospheric water vapor/carbon dioxide balance that influences natural weather patterns.

Forests act as barriers to water run-off allowing it to soak into groundwater reservoirs.  Their roots anchor soil and prevent the erosion that contributes to deadly flooding and landslides.

Admittedly some forest loss is caused by natural phenomena such as wildfires ignited by lightning strikes.  Many such conflagrations, however, are the result of arson and human carelessness.

The key questions and responsibilities that must be asked and acted upon are “what, if anything, can be done to mitigate the threat natural disasters pose, and why haven’t such measures, if they exist, been put into place already?”

That is precisely the largely unheralded task undertaken by any number of government agencies, think-tanks, banking institutions, foundations, and universities.  Their ranks include the World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED), the US Geological Survey (USGS), the World Bank, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR), the United Nations, and more.  Their mission is “Disaster Resilience,” defined in short, as how nations, communities, and individual households can endure, survive, and respond with ways to reduce similar devastation in the future.

The Netherlands is an example of such resilience. It’s a nation with high hazard exposure. Nearly a third of its population is at risk from floods, storms, sea-level rise, and other natural threats.  Due to countermeasures planned and put in place, the Netherlands’ vulnerability is comparatively low.

Increasingly disaster risk management (DRM) projects employ a combination of “green infrastructure” nature-based solutions (NBS), and conventional or “gray infrastructure” engineering measures such as building embankments, dams, levees, and channels to control flooding. Green nature-based solutions include restoring mangrove forests to reduce storm surge wave impacts; coral and oyster reef barriers to lessen wave intensity farther away from coastlines; as well as creating and expanding urban wetlands to slow rain run-off and allow it to gradually drain into river or groundwater storage areas.

China turned to nature-based solutions when it created its “Sponge City” project in 16 pilot locations that traditionally suffer flooding and palatable water shortages due to overly rapid and poorly planned development.  The results show real promise for disaster avoidance.  Vietnam instituted coastal flooding reduction based on a system of dikes and coastal mangrove forest restoration. Those measures reduced its disaster toll by US$215 million.  Natural wetlands in the United States moderated Hurricane Sandy damages by an estimated US$625 million.  Similarly, Portland, Oregon curbed its urban flooding by nearly 94 percent.

Funding disaster resilience is expensive.  The 15-year estimate for Asia-Pacific disaster resilience infrastructure is US$26 trillion or US$1.7 trillion each year. The good news, derived from a study of 23 years of U.S. federal investment in disaster resilience, is that for every U.S. dollar spent to mitigate disaster impact, six dollars are saved in future disaster costs.

The International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources (IFCNR) recommends governments around the world increase their urgency and priority in funding disaster resilience.  Nature will not halt its generous offerings of rain, wind, and tornado-filled weather events.  El Niño and La Niña will not disappear.  Ocean waves will not cease to surge against coastal communities.  It is far better and less expensive in the long run to invest in disaster mitigation projects now than pay a far dearer price in dollars and lives every year far into the future.

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